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Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


IT will be plain from what I have told, that Donal's imagination was full of Ginevra, and his was not an economy whose imagination could enjoy itself without calling the heart to share. At the same time, his being in love, if already I may use concerning him that most general and most indefinite of phrases, so far from obstructing his study, was in reality an aid to his thinking and a spur to excellence -- not excellence over others, but over himself. There were moments, doubtless, long moments too, in which he forgot Homer and Cicero and differential calculus and chemistry, for |the bonnie lady-lassie,| -- that was what he called her to himself; but it was only, on emerging from the reverie, to attack his work with fresh vigour. She was so young, so plainly girlish, that as yet there was no room for dread or jealousy; the feeling in his heart was a kind of gentle angel-worship; and he would have turned from the idea of marrying her, if indeed it had ever presented itself, as an irreverent thought, which he dared not for a moment be guilty of entertaining. It was besides, an idea too absurd to be indulged in by one who, in his wildest imaginations, always, through every Protean embodiment, sought and loved and clung to the real. His chief thought was simply to find favour in the eyes of the girl. His ideas hovered about her image, but it was continually to burn themselves in incense to her sweet ladyhood. As often as a song came fluttering its wings at his casement, the next thought was Ginevra -- and there would be something to give her! I wonder how many loves of the poets have received their offerings in correspondent fervour. I doubt if Ginevra, though she read them with marvel, was capable of appreciating the worth of Donal's. She was hardly yet woman enough to do them justice; for the heart of a girl, in its very sweetness and vagueness, is ready to admire alike the good and the indifferent, if their outer qualities be similar. It would cause a collapse in many a swelling of poet's heart if, while he heard lovely lips commending his verses, a voice were to whisper in his ear what certain other verses the lady commended also.

On Saturday evenings, after Gibbie left him, Donal kept his own private holiday, which consisted in making verses, or rather in setting himself in the position for doing so, when sometimes verses would be the result, sometimes not. When the moon was shining in at the windows of the large room adjoining, he would put out his lamp, open his door, and look from the little chamber, glowing with fire-light, into the strange, eerie, silent waste, crowded with the chaos of dis-created homes. There scores on scores of things, many of them unco, that is uncouth, the first meaning of which is unknown, to his eyes, stood huddled together in the dim light. The light looked weary and faint, as if with having forced its way through the dust of years on the windows; and Donal felt as if gazing from a clear conscious present out into a faded dream. Sometimes he would leave his nest, and walk up and down among spider-legged tables, tall cabinets, secret-looking bureaus, worked chairs -- yielding himself to his fancies. He was one who needed no opium, or such-like demon-help, to set him dreaming; he could dream at his will -- only his dreams were brief and of rapid change -- probably not more so, after the clock, than those other artificial ones, in which, to speculate on the testimony, the feeling of their length appears to be produced by an infinite and continuous subdivision of the subjective time. Now he was a ghost come back to flit, hovering and gliding about sad old scenes, that had gathered a new and a worse sadness from the drying up of the sorrow which was the heart of them -- his doom, to live thus over again the life he had made so little of in the body; his punishment, to haunt the world and pace its streets, unable to influence by the turn of a hair the goings on of its life, -- so to learn what a useless being he had been, and repent of his self-embraced insignificance. Now he was a prisoner, pining and longing for life and air and human companionship; that was the sun outside, whose rays shone thus feebly into his dungeon by repeated reflections. Now he was a prince in disguise, meditating how to appear again and defeat the machinations of his foes, especially of the enchanter who made him seem to the eyes of his subjects that which he was not. But ever his thoughts would turn again to Ginevra, and ever the poems he devised were devised as in her presence and for her hearing. Sometimes a dread would seize him -- as if the strange things were all looking at him, and something was about to happen; then he would stride hastily back to his own room, close the door hurriedly, and sit down by the fire. Once or twice he was startled by the soft entrance of his landlady's grand-daughter, come to search for something in one of the cabinets they had made a repository for small odds and ends of things. Once he told Gibbie that something had looked at him, but he could not tell what or whence or how, and laughed at himself, but persisted in his statement.

He had not yet begun to read his New Testament in the way Gibbie did, but he thought in the direction of light and freedom, and looked towards some goal dimly seen in vague grandeur of betterness. His condition was rather that of eyeless hunger after growth, than of any conscious aspiration towards less undefined good. He had a large and increasing delight in all forms of the generous, and shrunk instinctively from the base, but had not yet concentrated his efforts towards becoming that which he acknowledged the best, so that he was hardly yet on the straight path to the goal of such oneness with good as alone is a man's peace. I mention these things not with the intent of here developing the character of Donal, but with the desire that my readers should know him such as he then was.

Gibbie and he seldom talked about Ginevra. She was generally understood between them -- only referred to upon needful occasion: they had no right to talk about her, any more than to intrude on her presence unseasonably.

Donal went to Mr. Sclater's church because Mr. Sclater required it, in virtue of the position he assumed as his benefactor. Mr. Sclater in the pulpit was a trial to Donal, but it consoled him to be near Gibbie, also that he had found a seat in the opposite gallery, whence he could see Ginevra when her place happened to be not far from the door of one of the school-pews. He did not get much benefit from Mr. Sclater's sermons: I confess he did not attend very closely to his preaching -- often directed against doctrinal errors of which, except from himself, not one of his congregation had ever heard, or was likely ever to hear. But I cannot say he would have been better employed in listening, for there was generally something going on in his mind that had to go on, and make way for more. I have said generally, for I must except the times when his thoughts turned upon the preacher himself, and took forms such as the following. But it might be a lesson to some preachers to know that a decent lad like Donal may be making some such verses about one of them while he is preaching. I have known not a few humble men in the pulpit of whom rather than write such a thing Donal would have lost the writing hand.

'Twas a sair sair day 'twas my hap till
Come under yer soon', Mr. Sclater;
But things maun he putten a tap till,
An' sae maun ye, seener or later!

For to hear ye rowtin' an' scornin',
Is no to hark to the river;
An' to sit here till brak trowth's mornin',
Wad be to be lost for ever.

I confess I have taken a liberty, and changed one word for another in the last line. He did not show these verses to Gibbie; or indeed ever find much fault with the preacher in his hearing; for he knew that while he was himself more open-minded to the nonsense of the professional gentleman, Gibbie was more open-hearted towards the merits of the man, with whom he was far too closely associated on week-days not to feel affection for him; while, on the other hand, Gibbie made neither head nor tail of his sermons, not having been instructed in the theological mess that goes with so many for a theriac of the very essentials of religion; and therefore, for anything he knew, they might be very wise and good. At first he took refuge from the sermon in his New Testament; but when, for the third time, the beautiful hand of the ministerial spouse appeared between him and the book, and gently withdrew it, he saw that his reading was an offence in her eyes, and contented himself thereafter with thinking: listening to the absolutely unintelligible he found impossible. What a delight it would have been to the boy to hear Christ preached such as he showed himself, such as in no small measure he had learned him -- instead of such as Mr. Sclater saw him reflected from the tenth or twentieth distorting mirror! They who speak against the Son of Man oppose mere distortions and mistakes of him, having never beheld, neither being now capable of beholding, him; but those who have transmitted to them these false impressions, those, namely, who preach him without being themselves devoted to him, and those who preach him having derived their notions of him from other scources than himself, have to bear the blame that they have such excuses for not seeking to know him. He submits to be mis-preached, as he submitted to be lied against while visibly walking the world, but his truth will appear at length to all: until then until he is known as he is, our salvation tarrieth.

Mrs. Sclater showed herself sincere, after her kind, to Donal as well as to Gibbie. She had by no means ceased to grow, and already was slowly bettering under the influences of the New Testament in Gibbie, notwithstanding she had removed the letter of it from her public table. She told Gibbie that he must talk to Donal about his dress and his speech. That he was a lad of no common gifts was plain, she said, but were he ever so |talented| he could do little in the world, certainly would never raise himself, so long as he dressed and spoke ridiculously. The wisest and best of men would be utterly disregarded, she said, if he did not look and speak like other people. Gibbie thought with himself this could hardly hold, for there was John the Baptist; he answered her, however, that Donal could speak very good English if he chose, but that the affected tone and would-be-fine pronunciation of Fergus Duff had given him the notion that to speak anything but his mother-tongue would be unmanly and false. As to his dress, Donal was poor, Gibbie said, and could not give up wearing any clothes so long as there was any wear in them. |If you had seen me once!| he added, with a merry laugh to finish for his fingers.

Mrs. Sclater spoke to her husband, who said to Gibbie that, if he chose to provide Donal with suitable garments, he would advance him the money: -- that was the way he took credit for every little sum he handed his ward, but in his accounts was correct to a farthing.

Gibbie would thereupon have dragged Donal at once to the tailor; but Donal was obstinate.

|Na, na,| he said; |the claes is guid eneuch for him 'at weirs them. Ye dee eneuch for me, Sir Gilbert, a'ready; an' though I wad be obleeged to you as I wad to my mither hersel', to cleed me gien I warna dacent, I winna tak your siller nor naebody ither's to gang fine. Na, na; I'll weir the claes oot, an' we s' dee better wi' the neist. An' for that bonnie wuman, Mistress Scletter, ye can tell her, 'at by the time I hae onything to say to the warl', it winna be my claes 'at'll haud fowk ohn hearkent; an' gien she considers them 'at I hae noo, ower sair a disgrace till her gran' rooms, she maun jist no inveet me, an' I'll no come; for I canna presently help them. But the neist session, whan I hae better, for I'm sure to get wark eneuch in atween, I'll come an' shaw mysel', an' syne she can dee as she likes.|

This high tone of liberty, so free from offence either given or taken, was thoroughly appreciated by both Mr. and Mrs. Sclater, and they did not cease to invite him. A little talk with the latter soon convinced him that there was neither assumption nor lack of patriotism in speaking the language of the people among whom he found himself; and as he made her his model in the pursuit of the accomplishment, he very soon spoke a good deal better English than Mr. Sclater. But with Gibbie, and even with the dainty Ginevra, he could not yet bring himself to talk anything but his mother-tongue.

|I cannot mak my moo',| he would say, |to speyk onything but the nat'ral tongue o' poetry till sic a bonnie cratur as Miss Galbraith; an' for yersel', Gibbie -- man! I wad be ill willin' to bigg a stane wa' atween me an' the bonnie days whan Angus Mac Pholp was the deil we did fear, an' Hornie the deil we didna. -- Losh, man! what wad come o' me gien I hed to say my prayers in English! I doobt gien 't wad come oot prayin' at a'!|

I am well aware that most Scotch people of that date tried to say their prayers in English, but not so Janet or Robert, and not so had they taught their children. I fancy not a little unreality was thus in their case avoided.

|What will you do when you are a minister?| asked Gibbie on his fingers.

|Me a minnister?| echoed Donal. |Me a minnister!| he repeated. |Losh, man! gien I can save my ain sowl, it'll be a' 'at I'm fit for, ohn lo'dent it wi' a haill congregation o' ither fowk's. Na, na; gien I can be a schuilmaister, an' help the bairnies to be guid, as my mither taucht mysel', an' hae time to read, an' a feow shillin's to buy buiks aboot Aigypt an' the Holy Lan', an' a full an' complete edition o' Plato, an' a Greek Lexicon -- a guid ane, an' a Jamieson's Dictionar', haith, I'll be a hawpy man! An' gien I dinna like the schuilmaisterin', I can jist tak to the wark again, whilk I cudna dee sae weel gien I had tried the preachin': fowk wad ca' me a stickit minister! Or maybe they'll gie me the sheep to luik efter upo' Glashgar, whan they're ower muckle for my father, an' that wad weel content me. Only I wad hae to bigg a bit mair to the hoosie, to haud my buiks: I maun hae buiks. I wad get the newspapers whiles, but no aften, for they're a sair loss o' precious time. Ye see they tell ye things afore they're sure, an' ye hae to spen' yer time the day readin' what ye'll hae to spen' yer time the morn readin' oot again; an' ye may as weel bide till the thing's sattled a wee. I wad jist lat them fecht things oot 'at thoucht they saw hoo they oucht to gang; an' I wad gie them guid mutton to haud them up to their dreary wark, an' maybe a sangy noo an' than 'at wad help them to drap it a'thegither.|

|But wouldn't you like to have a wife, Donal, and children, like your father and mother?| spelt Gibbie.

|Na, na; nae wife for me, Gibbie!| answered the philosopher. |Wha wad hae aither a pure schuilmaister or a shepherd? -- 'cep' it was maybe some lass like my sister Nicie, 'at wadna ken Euclid frae her hose, or Burns frae a mill-dam, or conic sections frae the hole i' the great peeramid.|

|I don't like to hear you talk like that, Donal,| said Gibbie. |What do you say to mother?|

|The mither's no to be said aboot,| answerd Donal. |She's ane by hersel', no ane like ither fowk. Ye wadna think waur o' the angel Gabriel 'at he hedna jist read Homer clean throu', wad ye?|

|If I did,| answered Gibbie, |he would only tell me there was time enough for that.|

When they met on a Friday evening, and it was fine, they would rove the streets, Gibbie taking Donal to the places he knew so well in his childhood, and enjoying it the more that he could now tell him so much better what he remembered. The only place he did not take him to was Jink Lane, with the house that had been Mistress Croale's. He did take him to the court in the Widdiehill, and show him the Auld Hoose o' Galbraith, and the place under the stair where his father had worked. The shed was now gone; the neighbours had by degrees carried it away for firewood. The house was occupied still as then by a number of poor people, and the door was never locked, day or night, any more than when Gibbie used to bring his father home. He took Donal to the garret where they had slept -- one could hardly say lived, and where his father died. The door stood open, and the place was just as they had left it. A year or two after, Gibbie learned how it came to be thus untenanted: it was said to be haunted. Every Sunday Sir George was heard at work, making boots for his wee Gibbie from morning to night; after which, when it was dark, came dreadful sounds of supplication, as of a soul praying in hell-fire. For a while the house was almost deserted in consequence.

|Gien I was you, Sir Gilbert,| said Donal, who now and then remembered Mrs. Sclater's request -- they had come down, and looking at the outside of the house, had espied a half-obliterated stone-carving of the Galbraith arms -- |Gien I was you, Sir Gilbert, I wad gar Maister Scletter keep a sherp luik oot for the first chance o' buyin' back this hoose. It wad be a great peety it sud gang to waur afore ye get it. Eh! sic tales as this hoose cud tell!|

|How am I to do that, Donal? Mr. Sclater would not mind me. The money's not mine yet, you know,| said Gibbie.

|The siller is yours, Gibbie,| answered Donal; |it's yours as the kingdom o' h'aven's yours; it's only 'at ye canna jist lay yer han's upo' 't yet. The seener ye lat that Maister Scletter ken 'at ye ken what ye're aboot, the better. An' believe me, whan he comes to un'erstan' 'at ye want that hoose koft, he'll no be a day ohn gane to somebody or anither aboot it.|

Donal was right, for within a month the house was bought, and certain necessary repairs commenced.

Sometimes on those evenings they took tea with Mistress Croale, and it was a proud time with her when they went. That night at least the whisky bottle did not make its appearance.

Mrs. Sclater continued to invite young ladies to the house for Gibbie's sake, and when she gave a party, she took care there should be a proportion of young people in it; but Gibbie, although of course kind and polite to all, did not much enjoy these gatherings. It began to trouble him a little that he seemed to care less for his kind than before; but it was only a seeming, and the cause of it was this: he was now capable of perceiving facts in nature and character which prevented real contact, and must make advances towards it appear as offensive as they were useless. But he did not love the less that he had to content himself, until the kingdom should come nearer, with loving at a more conscious distance; by loving kindness and truth he continued doing all he could to bring the kingdom whose end is unity. Hence he had come to restrain his manner -- nothing could have constrained his manners, which now from the conventional point of view were irreproachable; but if he did not so often execute a wild dance, or stand upon one leg, the glow in his eyes had deepened, and his response to any advance was as ready and thorough, as frank and sweet as ever; his eagerness was replaced by a stillness from which his eyes took all coldness, and his smile was as the sun breaking out in a gray day of summer, and turning all from doves to peacocks. In this matter there was one thing worthy of note common to Donal and him, who had had the same divine teaching from Janet: their manners to all classes were the same, they showed the same respect to the poor, the same ease with the rich.

I must confess, however, that before the session was over, Donal found it required all his strength of mind to continue to go to Mrs. Sclater's little parties -- from kindness she never asked him to her larger ones; and the more to his praise it was that he did not refuse one of her invitations. The cause was this: one bright Sunday morning in February, coming out of his room to go to church, and walking down the path through the furniture in a dreamy mood, he suddenly saw a person meeting him straight in the face. |Sic a queer-like chield!| he remarked inwardly, stepped on one side to let him pass -- and perceived it was himself reflected from head to foot in a large mirror, which had been placed while he was out the night before. The courage with which he persisted, after such a painful enlightenment, in going into company in those same garments, was right admirable and enviable; but no one knew of it until its exercise was long over.

The little pocket-money Mr. Sclater allowed Gibbie, was chiefly spent at the shop of a certain secondhand bookseller, nearly opposite Mistress Murkison's. The books they bought were carried to Donal's room, there to be considered by Gibbie Donal's, and by Donal Gibbie's. Among the rest was a reprint of Marlow's Faust, the daring in the one grand passage of which both awed and delighted them; there were also some of the Ettrick Shepherd's eerie stories, alone in their kind; and above all there was a miniature copy of Shelley, whose verse did much for the music of Donal's, while yet he could not quite appreciate the truth for the iridescence of it: he said it seemed to him to have been all composed in a balloon. I have mentioned only works of imagination, but it must not be supposed they had not a relish for stronger food: the books more severe came afterwards, when they had liberty to choose their own labours; now they had plenty of the harder work provided for them.

Somewhere about this time Fergus Duff received his license to preach, and set himself to acquire what his soul thirsted after -- a reputation, namely, for eloquence. This was all the flood-mark that remained of the waters of verse with which he had at one time so plentifully inundated his soul. He was the same as man he had been as youth -- handsome, plausible, occupied with himself, determined to succeed, not determined to labour. Praise was the very necessity of his existence, but he had the instinct not to display his beggarly hunger -- which reached even to the approbation of such to whom he held himself vastly superior. He seemed generous, and was niggardly, by turns; cultivated suavity; indulged in floridity both of manners and speech; and signed his name so as nobody could read it, though his handwriting was plain enough.

In the spring, summer, and autumn, Donal laboured all day with his body, and in the evening as much as he could with his mind. Lover of Nature as he was, however, more alive indeed than before to the delights of the country, and the genial companionship of terrene sights and sounds, scents and motions, he could not help longing for the winter and the city, that his soul might be freer to follow its paths. And yet what a season some of the labours of the field afforded him for thought! To the student who cannot think without books, the easiest of such labours are a dull burden, or a distress; but for the man in whom the wells have been unsealed, in whom the waters are flowing, the labour mingles gently and genially with the thought, and the plough he holds with his hands lays open to the sun and the air more soils than one. Mr. Sclater without his books would speedily have sunk into the mere shrewd farmer; Donal, never opening a book, would have followed theories and made verses to the end of his days.

Every Saturday, as before, he went to see his father and mother. Janet kept fresh and lively, although age told on her, she said, more rapidly since Gibbie went away.

|But gien the Lord lat auld age wither me up,| she said, |he'll luik efter the cracks himsel'.|

Six weeks of every summer between Donal's sessions, while the minister and his wife took their holiday, Gibbie spent with Robert and Janet. It was a blessed time for them all. He led then just the life of the former days, with Robert and Oscar and the sheep, and Janet and her cow and the New Testament -- only he had a good many more things to think about now, and more ways of thinking about them. With his own hands he built a neat little porch to the cottage door, with close sides and a second door to keep the wind off: Donal and he carried up the timber and the mortar. But although he tried hard to make Janet say what he could do for her more, he could not bring her to reveal any desire that belonged to this world -- except, indeed, for two or three trifles for her husband's warmth and convenience.

|The sicht o' my Lord's face,| she said once, when he was pressing her, |is a' 'at I want, Sir Gibbie. For this life it jist blecks me to think o' onything I wad hae or wad lowse. This boady o' mine's growin' some heavy-like, I maun confess, but I wadna hae't ta'en aff o' me afore the time. It wad be an ill thing for the seed to be shal't ower sune.|

They almost always called him Sir Gibbie, and he never objected, or seemed either annoyed or amused at it; he took it just as the name that was his, the same way as his hair or his hands were his; he had been called wee Sir Gibbie for so long.

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